WELLINGTON – All Black halfback TJ Perenara has become the highest-profile rugby player to condemn Wallaby Israel Folau's anti-gay comments, with New Zealand legend Michael Jones also saying he disagreed with the Australian player's stance.
Perenara, who shares Polynesian heritage with Folau, said homophobic remarks from an athlete of Folau's stature were particularly hurtful to young Maori and Pacific islanders struggling with their identity.
“You don't need to look far to know that young Maori/PI are over-represented in youth suicide statistics and, as I understand it, even more so when you look to those who are part of the Rainbow community,” he tweeted late Wednesday. “Comments that cause further harm cannot be tolerated.”
The 45-Test All Black added: “As professional rugby players, whether we like it or not, we are role models for a lot of young people.”
Folau wrote on social media this month that God's plan for gay people was hell unless they repent their sins.
He later explained that his remarks were prompted by deeply-held religious beliefs and Rugby Australia decided against sanctioning him.
Jones, the loose forward who fired the All Blacks to victory in the inaugural World Cup in 1987, said his own faith did not prevent him from accepting gays.
A devout Christian from a Polynesian background who refused to play on Sundays during his international career, Jones said his heart went out to Folau.
“There's members of my family from those (gay) communities and we love them, they're integral in our lives and they're a big part of who we are,” he told reporters.
“Being able to express yourself is important, but doing it respectfully, with wisdom. There needs to be a lot of love and grace, particularly as Christians.”
Waikato Chiefs back Brad Weber became the first player to challenge Folau about his comments this week, saying they left him disgusted.
Perenara said young people should ignore them and realise “it's OK to be you, you are perfect as you are”.
“I am 100 percent against the comments that were made by Israel. It was not ok to say that,” he tweeted. “It's not an attitude I want to see in the game I love.”
New Zealand Herald rugby writer Gregor Paul welcomed the fact that players now felt comfortable calling out intolerance, rather than shying away from controversy.
“The dumb jock card may now be consigned to history, no longer valid or appropriate for players to use,” he wrote.
“They are professional athletes some of the time, but human all of the time and because of that, players have the same responsibility as everyone else to speak out against wrongdoing.”